Behind the SWP expulsions

beria.jpg

For this reason I consider that a prince ought to reckon conspiracies of little account when his people hold him in esteem; but when it is hostile to him, and bears hatred towards him, he ought to fear everything and everybody. And well-ordered states and wise princes have taken every care not to drive the nobles to desperation, and to keep the people satisfied and contented, for this is one of the most important objects a prince can have.
Niccolò Machiavelli

Andy has the big news about the SWP CC, in a typically well thought-out plan, managing to yet further reduce its clout in Respect by expelling leading members not deemed to be on-message enough. There’s a limit to what I can say about the concrete situation as I’m removed from the centre of events and I only know Nick Wrack and Rob Hoveman by reputation. I used to know Kevin Ovenden slightly and he struck me as a quite serious-minded and extremely loyal SWP cadre. So I’ll just add a few random thoughts of my own.

The first is that this shows the weakness of the SWP’s position. In days gone by, being an ex-member of the SWP was not much fun, whether you were formally expelled, chose to leave or (very common, this) were encouraged to resign. The only parallel I can think of is the practice of disfellowshipping carried on by the Jehovah’s Witnesses. You are talking here about radical shunning – members aren’t supposed to talk to you, nor are they allowed to sell you the paper, you’re barred from attending the SWP’s public events (boo hoo) and your personal failings, real or imagined, become the source for ever more lurid legends. This often goes on for years on end. A powerful incentive to keep your head down and stay in the leadership’s good books, and it may still be true for those SWP members who have voted with their feet and quietly stayed out of Respect. For those in Respect, however, who may have built up a whole new set of relationships, life on the outside may be looking less bleak these days. If even people like Rob, Kev and Ger Francis who were formed by and were willing participants in the SWP regime are suddenly growing testicles, you know the CC is in trouble.

My second point is to flag up that Respect is something new for the SWP. On the one hand, that speaks well for the SWP, that it didn’t have a history of unprincipled alliances with dodgy characters and dubious organisations. We can all think of others on the British left with much longer records in that respect. On the other hand, nor has it much experience of meaningful long-term alliances with anybody. The SWP of years past had a standard MO of running short-lived self-generated campaigns, the political equivalent of digging holes and filling them in again. You would hold a public meeting to launch a campaign, call a march, spend six weeks postering, hold the march, hopefully get a few recruits and then move on to the next campaign. While a few token individuals of little substance may have been put on the committee, relationships with others on the left were, let us say, sporadic. Importantly, the SWP was always in a dominant position. The CC literally don’t know how to function in an alliance that they don’t control.

There is a further point, which has to do with the post-Cliff leadership vacuum. The problem with an organisation literally built around the personality of Cliff was that the old man’s death would lead to chronic instability if not paralysis. We might draw as a parallel the pious hope occasionally expressed over here that the DUP will “modernise” after Papa Doc leaves the stage. No it won’t, it’ll be more like The Sopranos. Robbo will turn on Doddsy. Doddsy will turn on Jeffrey Boy. Once you throw Baby Doc, Singing Willie and Sammy the Streaker into the mix, you have a recipe for Paisleyite mayhem. Well, the post-Cliff SWP is sort of the antimatter version. And bear in mind that, while the CC may hang together in clique fashion and present a united face to the world, it isn’t nearly as monolithic as it appears. In fact it is a seething nest of egos and ambitions.

If you remember, the Big Idea around the time of Cliff’s death was the “anti-capitalist” turn. Prof Callinicos was the point-man here, and his role in excommunicating the American heretics seemed to mark him out as the coming man. But Alex had a few disabilities. His unpopularity in the ranks wasn’t necessarily fatal, but the fact that he is essentially a part-time SWPer and doesn’t have any base in the apparat meant that, while he could to some extent set the ideological tone, he couldn’t realistically hope to emerge as paramount leader.

So the main thing about the pecking order in the last few years is that, thanks to their high profile in the antiwar movement and Respect, John and Lindsey have established themselves as the effective First Couple. This has not only left them exposed to sniping, as would be the case for any leading member trying to set himself up as emperor, but being the two CC members most closely identified with Respect may have been helpful when Respect looked to be going great guns, however it was always going to be a hostage to fortune if the project all went pear-shaped.

Andy argues that the SWP leadership’s extraordinary behaviour, not least shouting about a left-right split and the rottenness of George for internal consumption, while saying nothing of the kind publicly, can only be explained in terms of protecting Rees’ personal prestige. Well, there is something to this. Neither Rees nor German works for the SWP any more, both are Respect fulltimers and this undermines their material base in the SWP leadership. It is almost certain that, were Rees removed as Respect National Secretary, the CC would reshuffle their portfolios and find him a job back at the centre, but that isn’t the point. A defeat for Rees in Respect would be a huge blow to his credibility and prestige, and Rees is all too familiar with what that means in a culture where comrades are encouraged to put the top leaders on a pedestal.

At the same time, we know that there are different schools of thought in the SWP, although the nature of the regime obscures this for people who aren’t clued in to its peculiar political culture. There are plenty of old-school SWPers who have been unenthusiastic about Respect from the word go; there are also those who are genuinely serious about Respect and really want to build it. Our pal Rees hasn’t been making himself particularly popular with either school of late. In addition, you don’t have to be a Kremlinologist of the stature of Peter Manson to be aware of the possibility that, for motives both pure and base, plenty of people in the SWP, very likely including elements of the CC, actively want Rees to get his arse handed to him by George.

It’s almost enough to make you feel sorry for the guy. Almost.

72 Comments

  1. ejh said,

    October 15, 2007 at 3:28 pm

    You are talking here about radical shunning – members aren’t supposed to talk to you, nor are they allowed to sell you the paper, you’re barred from attending the SWP’s public events (boo hoo) and your personal failings, real or imagined, become the source for ever more lurid legends.

    Ah, this is a lurid legend in itself. As an ex-member of twenty years’ standing I have throughout that time been talked to by SWP members, been offered their paper and been invited to (and even addressed) their events. So tish, sir.

  2. Mark P said,

    October 15, 2007 at 3:38 pm

    ejh:

    But would that be the case if you had been expelled, or had left after a row? Splinteredsunrise’s description does sound somewhat exaggerated, but it does seem to be true for instance that expelled people are barred from SWP public events.

    Splinteredsunrise:

    That’s an interesting poing about Alex Callinicos, who did seem to be the main man in the post-Cliff SWP for a while. He was the one putting out the theoretical articles and the “anti-capitalist” turn was very much his baby. Yet more recently Rees and German have been much more prominent. That said, isn’t it possible that there really is a kind of collective leadership in the SWP and that no Cliff replacement is sought or needed? I don’t want to sound naive but it has been seven years or more since Cliff died and there still isn’t any clearly visible head honcho.

    From the outside, it does seem to me that there is something of a distance between the core leadership as a group and the rank and file. I remember being at meetings with half a dozen British SWP CC members before the London ESF, yet none of them would be selling their paper. Neither were you likely to bump into one of them outside your local tube station on a Saturday morning.

  3. splinteredsunrise said,

    October 15, 2007 at 3:39 pm

    I suppose it matters on what terms you leave. It’s something that’s happened in varying degrees to both myself and people I’m well acquainted with – so not universal, but real enough and common enough to be a deterrent.

  4. splinteredsunrise said,

    October 15, 2007 at 3:44 pm

    Mark P: Maybe a collective leadership when things are going well, but there has been a fair bit of jostling for position. People are very sensitive to pecking orders.

    Distance really depends on the individuals. In the Irish organisation McCann is not the leadership figure that Allen is, but Allen is much less remote from the rank and file. (Except in Derry.) Some actually like mixing with the ranks, but many don’t.

  5. Mark P said,

    October 15, 2007 at 4:06 pm

    I think the reason the behaviour of their British leaders seemed odd to me was that it was quite different from what I’ve seen of their main Irish leaders.

    Whatever you think about Allen or Boyd Barrett, they certainly aren’t aloof from their members and neither seems afraid of a bit of hard work. I suppose a smaller organisation can’t support a leadership caste in quite the same way, even if they wanted one. McCann as you say isn’t really a central leader of the group – in fact you could say that he’s semi-detached from the SWP rather than detached from the rank and file. Also, he seems to be fairly close to what remains of the SWP in Derry.

    It’s also very different from the culture of the British SP, where getting a leadership position means that your branch members think you have less rather than more excuse for missing local activities.

  6. ejh said,

    October 15, 2007 at 4:26 pm

    1. There are those of us who think the SP and SWP resemble one another rather more than either of them think. Our reasons for doing so are occasionally based on knowledge and understanding rather than cynicism.

    2. I have more than once spotted Professor Callinicos with a bunch of papers clasped to his chest.

    3. Personally, if I were running an organisation and expelled somebody, I’d quite likely bar them from my organisation’s meetings, I think. Whether I’d do that as a rule would depend on the circumstances, but given the acrimony usually involved it can’t be that bad an idea.

  7. Andy Newman said,

    October 15, 2007 at 4:36 pm

    Yes I have seen most of the CC sell SW at some time or another.

    And yes, I think the SP and SWP are two slices from the same swiss roll.

    But ejh, the experiences splintered sunrise describes are qute common for people who leave the SWP under a cloud. Of course it is not universal, and on a personal and political basis I still get on with them OK.

  8. Mark P said,

    October 15, 2007 at 4:44 pm

    1. I’m well aware of such views.

    2. If he hasn’t had a bunch of papers clasped to his chest on occasion I’d be amazed. What I can say, from personal experience, is that despite being at a number of public meetings with half a dozen members of the British SWP CC, I never once saw any of them attempt to sell a paper. Nor did I ever see any of them on any of the many SWP stalls I encountered when I, like they themselves, lived in London. This could well be an unusual experience, but I suspect that it is not.

    3. I think that banning someone from public meetings for any reason other than repeated disruptive behaviour at such meetings or physical threats or something similar is rather undemocratic. There is, to my mind, a large difference between the private meetings of an organisation and meetings which are advertised as being open to the public.

    Getting back to point 1 again for a moment, I can tell you that one minor difference between the SWP and the SP is that the SP has a standing policy that anyone who wants to, bar fascists, can come to its public meetings.

  9. ejh said,

    October 15, 2007 at 4:45 pm

    Mmm, but that cloud was not among the specifications originally listed.

    Actually I think there’d be a lot of tension and mutual desire to avoid one another in most relationships of all sorts that had ended in acrimony.

  10. ejh said,

    October 15, 2007 at 4:58 pm

    I think that banning someone from public meetings for any reason other than repeated disruptive behaviour at such meetings or physical threats or something similar is rather undemocratic.

    In principle so do I, but it doesn’t follow that it’s unwise.

  11. Andy Newman said,

    October 15, 2007 at 4:59 pm

    Mark P

    I remember attending Militant public meetings during the 1980s, when there would be maybe twoelve people there, four from the SWP. And yes we would be allowed in, but we SWP members would all sit with our hands up for the whole meeting and not be called, and then the chair would say “well I can’t see anyone lelse indicating, so I;ll ask comrade x to sum up”

    Goodness knows what any non-aligned punter would have thought about it.

  12. ejh said,

    October 15, 2007 at 5:00 pm

    I think that banning someone from public meetings for any reason other than repeated disruptive behaviour at such meetings or physical threats or something similar is rather undemocratic.

    In principle so do I, but it doesn’t follow that it’s unwise.

  13. Andy Newman said,

    October 15, 2007 at 5:03 pm

    ejh: “Mmm, but that cloud was not among the specifications originally listed.”

    I think that cloud was always implied.

    I am surporised you never came across this, I remembbr as one example a conrade Dave B…. being asked to leave the SWP by the branch committee in the mid 1980s becasue he used to quote from Ernest mandel sometimes in meetings, and we were all told not to talk to him “becasue he is a bit odd”.

    Indeed i remember myself being sent out on occassions along with another enforcer to lay the law down to comrades, telling them to fit in or fuck off.

  14. ejh said,

    October 15, 2007 at 5:13 pm

    I think it’s my experience that the acrimony of separation tends to do the job of its own accord.

    It is also true that some ex-members get obsessed with the place they’ve just left and to be honest it might not be the worst idea ever to suggest that people give them a wide berth. There is a lot of obsessive and destructive anti-SWPism and I’d imagine a certain amount of time does have to be wasted dealing with it.

    Arguably, most bad practices on the left stem from overdoing things that are probably necessary at the outset.

  15. ejh said,

    October 15, 2007 at 5:28 pm

    Incidentally I hadn’t realised that Macchiavelli was on marxists.org. Heh.

  16. Mark P said,

    October 15, 2007 at 5:35 pm

    Andy, I can’t answer for the practices of Swindon (or wherever) Militant in the 1980s. They might have had that approach or some meeting chair might have decided to act the maggot. I don’t know. What I can talk about is my own experience, in Ireland, Scotland and England over the last decade.

    The Socialist Party has a standing policy of allowing anyone, bar fascists, into its public meetings and it also has a standing policy of allowing any political tendency to speak. This includes very hostile ex-members or people from the SWP. It even extends to Sparts. The only time I’ve been aware of a ban on anyone coming to our meetings was during a brief period about seven years ago in Dublin after the Sparts had attempted to seriously disrupt a meeting. There is no speaker slip system used or anything similar.

    I’ve heard many complaints about the SP over the years, but I’ve never heard anyone complain that they weren’t allowed in to any public meeting I’ve been at or that they weren’t allowed to speak at it.

  17. Steve said,

    October 15, 2007 at 5:39 pm

    I though Galloway was a Mossad plant to discredit the causes he espoused.
    It seems he was MI5

  18. Andy Newman said,

    October 15, 2007 at 5:42 pm

    Bristol at that time. But it was pretty much all over at that time, and the big national conference of the national federation of anti-poll tax unions was appalling!

    But the SP are a lot better now.

  19. Steve said,

    October 15, 2007 at 5:46 pm

    http://www.workersliberty.org/node/9375

  20. Andy Newman said,

    October 15, 2007 at 5:47 pm

    On the subject of the picture.

    I read a realy interesting biograohy of Beria a while back, and I hadn’t known that his brief period in charge of the USSR saw sudden liberalisation, and an offer to NATO that the USSR would withdraw from Eastern Germany.

    In fact it was Beria’s undermining of the leadership of the SED that gave the builders on Stalinallee confidence to have anti-government riots on 17th July 1953, which paradoxically waas what finsihed off beria, and provoked the coup that put Khrischev in power.

  21. Mark P said,

    October 15, 2007 at 6:40 pm

    Anyway, getting back to the original posting:

    Does anyone think that this is likely to provoke further expulsions (Hicks for starters) or have they successfully beheaded any potential Gallowayite faction before it can form? Tying this back to the Nick Bird resignation of a few weeks ago, Bird reported that only a handful of people voted against the leadership line at their Party Council.

  22. Andy Newman said,

    October 15, 2007 at 6:50 pm

    Yes – But the elections to party council may not have been and probably weren’t representative of the membership.

    There are a number of factors at play here, one of which is that people often don’t go and argue a dissenting position in the SWP where you know you will just be beaten up. Instead keep you head down (with a reasonable expectation than in a years time the line will change and the whole hoo hah will be forgotten)

    there are also less than fair and transparent electioon procedures to these events, indeed there not necessarily a uniform practice of how delegates are selected (it is the result that counts, not the process)

    Expelling Jer Hicks would be another big move for the SWP. A very well respected industrial militant, with a local base of support. And his partner, Jo, has been in the IS/SWP for must be 35 years or more, and is also very well respected.

    I simply doon’t know what wil play within the SWP’s own structures, but defeat for the leadership is very unlikely in a set peice batle. But the more important issue is whether there will be a layer of SWP members who will simply continue their work within respect, whatever the CC says, and it is this sort of attrtition that will undermine the credibility of the CC.

  23. Andy Newman said,

    October 15, 2007 at 6:51 pm

    Oh when I said “Yes” I was responding to mark P’s point:

    “Bird reported that only a handful of people voted against the leadership line at their Party Council”

  24. October 15, 2007 at 7:08 pm

    Andy,
    following on from your comment:

    and unfortunately, it was the anti-government demonstrations (I think there was little rioting – granted, there were some in Berlin, where I think it is perfectly reasonable to believe that “the west” were involved – the ‘borders’ between eastern and western Berlin being open at the time) which led to the USSR not deposing GDR leader Ulbricht as that would have – also perfectly reasonably – been seen as a sign of weakness. And it took another 25 years before another slight (and short-lived) bit of sudden liberalisation when Honecker took over. But it was very short-lived.

    The USSR were right to want to get rid of Ulbricht – and not only because they could clearly see what was about to happen (and did) in Berlin.

    On the USSR’s offer to NATO (I believe, based on what I’ve read on this, was that it was Stalin’s public position all along) – I think you have to remember at the time that the war hadn’t been over very long, there was a lot of dissatisfaction with the post-war order in west as well as in east Germany, and with the troops, reparations, the total removal factories was carried out by the British army, and the French (and probably the US), and not just the Russians – and also there was a lot of nationalism. The SED were for unification, as were the west, but the SED (and the KPD in the west) were pushing it, probably because they knew the west would never go for it, and it was their main thing at the time – for some kind of constituent assembly etc. There were petitions over it in the west, the communist youth organisation was banned in the west, one member was shot dead on a demo by the police etc., I think there was meant to be a mass meeting around the demand (in the west) which was banned etc. – anyway, the line was, if the Americans, British and French withdraw from West Germany, the USSR would withdraw from the east ,and all of Germany would become a demilitarised zone. The GDR anthem was all about the wish for unification, for “sunshine over Germany, more beautiful than ever before” – and nothing about socialism. Needless to say, this all went swiftly out of the window after the Berlin Wall was built and the anthem’s text was, if not actually “banned”, never sung again until late 1989…

    Nothing whatsoever to do with this post, so apologies(and what was the name of the biography?)…

  25. WorldbyStorm said,

    October 15, 2007 at 7:08 pm

    I sort of noted this over on Socialist Unity, but I’m genuinely amazed at the differentiation of status between full-timers and other members that people who’ve been through the SWP or the SP seem to quite explicitly reference. The WP were no angels and yes there was a central core, but the distinction seemed to be much lesser even to a lowly grunt such as myself. I wonder why that was, and is/was the same true in PSF, and was it a function of coming from the broad historic SF background? Any thoughts on it?

  26. Mark P said,

    October 15, 2007 at 7:30 pm

    I think that you may have the wrong end of the stick somewhat there, WBS. Most Trotskyist organisations put a lot of emphasis on building a full time apparatus. It’s one of the reasons why they generally punch well above their organisational weight. But there is not – at least in the Irish SP or SWP or the British SP, I get the impression that the British SWP may be slightly different but I don’t know for sure – some sharp divide in status between fulltimers and other members. Kieran Allen is not a second class citizen in the SWP!

  27. WorldbyStorm said,

    October 15, 2007 at 8:00 pm

    Sorry, MarkP, I should have been more clear to state that that referred to the British SWP. Inadvertently I referenced the SP.

  28. Andy Newman said,

    October 15, 2007 at 8:33 pm

    It is an interesting phenomenon, before the shut the print shop the SWP employed 100 odd people.

    It is correct what mark P says, that having a full time apparat allows them to punch above their real weight.

    Which is if you think about it a bad thing, as it also feeds the delusions of self-importance, and gives the full timers very instititutional reasons behinid defending th status quo in their organisation.

  29. Mark P said,

    October 15, 2007 at 10:51 pm

    100 full time staff members a couple of years ago? That seems like an over sized apparatus for a party that size. Unless the printshop (and to a lesser extent Bookmarks) accounted for a very big chunk of that?

  30. babeuf said,

    October 16, 2007 at 2:25 am

    Andy, would you say which biography of Beria you were reading? Some of us might like to give it a read too. Thanks.

  31. October 16, 2007 at 3:34 am

    I could comment on this in many places but I will do so here and at Dave’s Part.

    What’s very common in all these posts is the undisguised glee at the current (and I think exaggerated difficulties) of the SWP.

    My critique of the SWP would be quite hard but I also recognise that they’re far and away the largest Left force in the UK – bigger than the rest (excluding Labour ‘Lefts’) combined, and by quite a way.

    If I had managed to help build such an organisation then I would feel in a better position to pronounce and if I did, I wouldn’t be attacking them from the right, as many are here and on other sites.

    Nobody but nobody is addressing their comments to our comrades – rank and file SWP members and more.

    No wonder that a lot of them, with their misunderstanding of the word ‘sectarian’, will see much comment as just arcane and snidy criticism based on envy and made by those in organisations with little significance or just the views of atomised individuals (yes, like me).

    I don’t think Respect will implode because a few prominent SWPers have been expelled. And unlike some, SWP comrade, I don’t get excited by the thought of this project crashing. But I would like to see it replaced by a specifically socialist project – the Socialist Alliance again, but better.

    If Galloway and the SWP do break off permanently, don’t you think that our forces combined – that’s the SWP, SP and more (which would include both Respect SWP cllrs and SP cllrs) would give us a evens chance of making something better?

    With comradely greetings.

  32. ejh said,

    October 16, 2007 at 6:51 am

    allows them to punch above their real weight.

    Which is if you think about it a bad thing

    Eric Hobsbawn would disagree.

    What’s very common in all these posts is the undisguised glee at the current (and I think exaggerated difficulties) of the SWP.

    Quite. It’s not all there is and it varies from person to person, and on top of that there’s a few who are doing it who don’t think they’re doing it. But much or most of the commentary is neither accurate nor fraternal nor constructive.

  33. October 16, 2007 at 7:01 am

    [...] Isn’t that something? While Socialist Unity and Splintered Sunrise are conducting near forensic, and highly educational, analyses of the latest shakeout in the [...]

  34. WorldbyStorm said,

    October 16, 2007 at 7:32 am

    100 is an enormous figure. ejh, I wonder if you’re absolutely fair there.

    I don’t seem to see glee in most (although a small number do exhibit that).

    As someone outside the party it seems to me that there is a significant tranche on the left who have some experience of the SWP (in organisational terms) which has led to feelings that are not entirely kind. Now that generates it’s own dynamic.

    Oddly enough what I’m reading is effectively a heartfelt wish that the SWP would become more open, transparent and so on. Which actually is quite constructive. I have seen precious little of the ‘disband and go to your homes’ sort of nonsense…

  35. splinteredsunrise said,

    October 16, 2007 at 7:55 am

    Re the fulltimers, Tim Wohlforth wrote something very interesting about this in The Prophet’s Children – when he was running Healy’s American franchise, all the leaders were active in their branches but when he rejoined the (US) SWP, very few were – and since the SWP had quite a bit of money, Barnes had managed to build up quite a mini-bureaucracy.

    Now today’s SP is different in this sense from the old Militant, which used to have a huge fulltime apparatus. But then Militant based its structures on the official labour movement. In the SWP, there is the national leadership and below that very few structures – very libertarian until the boot comes down! But a tremendous amount of the functioning below national level is on the level of cliques, and the district organisers really act as plenipotentiaries for the CC.

    Beyond that, there is the question of distance that Mark P raised. Lindsey for one was made a fulltimer straight out of college, basically didn’t set foot outside the centre for about 25 years and has had no experience being a rank-and-filer in an ordinary branch. Ditto Rees having been a fulltimer virtually all his adult life, ditto Harman etc. Even with the best will in the world, that’s a bit problematic.

    Then we have our friend Bambery, who managed to go from the IMG to the SWP without losing his fulltime status…

    I don’t know the internal culture of the WP in that much detail, but from my knowledge of PSF I would guess that this is alien to the broader republican tradition. Of course that tradition has elitism problems of its own…

  36. splinteredsunrise said,

    October 16, 2007 at 8:16 am

    Sorry, I should have added Wohlforth’s point that the fulltimer is not motivated by material concerns, because they usually have peanuts to live on. But for the committed politico being able to be a fulltime politico is a privilege in itself.

  37. ejh said,

    October 16, 2007 at 8:37 am

    ejh, I wonder if you’re absolutely fair there.

    I don’t seem to see glee in most (although a small number do exhibit that).

    Oh, it’s better here than in most places but I understood Mr Punch to be referring to postings in other places too.

    Also, this argument – “there is a significant tranche on the left who have some experience of the SWP (in organisational terms) which has led to feelings that are not entirely kind” – while not untrue, is a very easily and very commonly abused one. No fraternal or constructive discussion will ever take place on the basis “they’ve got it coming to ‘em”. As it’s my contention that the worst, most off-putting thing about the left is not any particular line it takes but the way it conducts itself, I tend to view with disfavour the way in which people decide to let themselves off the leash – because sticking it to people you don’t like, whether they deserve it or not, is not the point.

    (Of course we all transgress in some way or other and at one time or another, self included, but tu quoque isn’t the point either. I think the point might be described as “finding a better way to talk to each other and to talk to other people.”)

  38. ejh said,

    October 16, 2007 at 8:50 am

    I also think that SWP-obsession is unhealthy in itself whatever is said. I think when we’re engaged in long and (as was said on CLR) “forensic” discussions involving the obscure doings of obscure individuals, often a long time ago, then there is an enormous absence of perspective involved. People can go on all they like about how it’s a big influence of the UK and Irish left, very very important to discuss it and so on. But the truth is than not only is it not important in any wider sense, but the degree (and nature) of attention involved enormously exceeds the degree to which it could possibly be important.

    From the outside it looks like what it is, which is a small number of people all attacking one another. And it’s what it looks like from the outside that people should ask themselves, and won’t.

  39. Andy Newman said,

    October 16, 2007 at 8:56 am

    The book I read was: “Beria: Stalin’s First Lieutenant”. Amy Knight. Princeton University Press, 1993.

    It is pretty good, as a straightforward historical account. Iit is interesting that Beria never seems to have been very interested in politics, but the crisis of the revolution enabled a chillingly ruthless bureaucrat to rise through the ranks, especially as he was prepared to change his principles at any time to fit in with those in power.

    It was also interesting that Beria was far from being individually a psychopath, he was just a buearocrat who accepted killing and torture as part of his job – I think there is something here about the “autonomy of violence” , that after the WW1, and the civil war, and the economic collapse, they were nearly all crazy, and prepared to turn to violence with quite a low threshhold (This is part of my feeling that it would have turned out no better had the left opposition been in charge)

  40. Andy Newman said,

    October 16, 2007 at 9:10 am

    Mmm ejh, is it important.

    Well there was an artcle by Bea Campbell in Marxism Today about this c1990. that argued that the SWP and the Militant/SP had a form of deflected importance becasue of i) the transformation of the Labour Party from being a mass party of the movement into a “party of opinion”, and ii) the implosion of the CP.

    So they form a centre around which certain forms of extra-parliamentary politics revolve. This is true for example of the peace movement and tha nti-fascist movement. And of course the Socialist Alliance and Respect.

    Becasue therefore a lot of activists encounter the SWP and don’t understand how they work, there is a general interest.

    But I also am unapologetic that i talk about the SWP becasue it is part of trying to understand what happened to my life.

    Tim Wohlforth’s work is a bot provocative, but he does have some useful insights, but the SWP does actually operate in a way that is quite mystifying for tose on the inside as well – because the de facto lines of communictauon, and chains of commands, the ckiques and the franchises are rarely acknowldeged within the SWP. In the absence to the SWPp opening uop for an academic investigation by social-anthropologists, then the best i can do to try to understand what happened to me was talk it over with other people who wnet through it.

    A survivors group disguised as political debate? maybe!

  41. ejh said,

    October 16, 2007 at 11:05 am

    Mmm, but there’s too much of it. I don’t want to argue that talking about A deflects from talking about B (an argument infinitely open to abuse) but I do want to argue that people vaguely interested in what socialists have to say are not likely to be attracted by long, heated discussions about how horrible the SWP or its leading members are.

  42. Andy Newman said,

    October 16, 2007 at 12:02 pm

    I don’t think the readershoip of this blog fall in the category of “people vaguely interested in what socialists have to say “

  43. chekov said,

    October 16, 2007 at 12:13 pm

    ejh, not all discussion can have recruitment as its goal and all the evidence seems to suggest that most people are far more interested (if not neccessarily attracted) in discussing how horrible the SWP / AN Other is than they are in discussing revolutionary politics.

    But, having said that it does seem to me that some people are being a bit quick to damn the SWP here. I mean the people who have left hardly seem to be paragons of individual thinking or socialist principle. Looks more like they’ve just hitched their wagons to a brighter star to me. Not a tremendous amount to applaud there.

  44. Idris of Dungiven said,

    October 16, 2007 at 12:30 pm

    With regard to Beria, did that biography of him say anything about the claims I once read that he selected young women from the gulag to rape and murder? I read that in the Guardian in the early 90s, but I’ve never seen anything about it since then, and there doesn’t seem to be anything about it on the net.

  45. splinteredsunrise said,

    October 16, 2007 at 12:36 pm

    Well, you don’t need to believe that the three expellees were great free thinkers. It would be a lot easier if they didn’t have a track record as hatchet men. But the question isn’t their virtues, it’s the SWP’s expulsion of long-term and extremely loyal members not for breaching discipline, but on the grounds that they might breach discipline when the big showdown with George comes. Which seems to me to indicate a basic weakness in their position.

    My view is that there are two clear options iro Respect. Either the SWP get out and go back to doing what they did in the 90s, or they stay in and build the thing. Shit or get off the pot in other words. You don’t need to be keen on either option to think that the current course is no good to anybody.

  46. McGazz said,

    October 16, 2007 at 12:50 pm

    “I once read that [Beria] selected young women from the gulag to rape and murder?”

    Alistair Gray mentions that in “1982 Janine” – I think he may even have suggested that Beria had women arrested specifically so he could rape them, rather than picking women who were already in the gulag. Of course, any ‘fact’ quoted in a novel should be taken with a pinch of salt. I’ve never seen it mentioned anywhere else.

  47. McGazz said,

    October 16, 2007 at 12:52 pm

    Wikipedia’s account (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lavrenty_Beria) suggests the stories may have been propaganda spread after his downfall. There don’t seem to be any reliable contemporary accounts.

  48. October 16, 2007 at 2:44 pm

    “In the absence to the SWP opening up for an academic investigation by social-anthropologist…”

    Lol Andy, I tried that and didn’t get very far!

  49. splinteredsunrise said,

    October 16, 2007 at 2:49 pm

    Lol Andy, I tried that and didn’t get very far!

    It’s nearly what you would need though. In an outfit where so much is done informally and the channels of communication are so obscure, looking at structures, documents etc can only get you so far. That of course is where the Weekly Worker falls down…

  50. ejh said,

    October 16, 2007 at 4:11 pm

    I don’t think the readershoip of this blog fall in the category of “people vaguely interested in what socialists have to say “

    I do. Don’t confuse the posters with the readers: there’s always far, far more people reading a blog than posting comments on it.

    ejh, not all discussion can have recruitment as its goal

    I think it’s about ninety thousand years since I tried to recruit anybody to anything. Give or take Streatham and Brixton chess club.

  51. babeuf said,

    October 16, 2007 at 5:27 pm

    Andy said: “The book I read was: “Beria: Stalin’s First Lieutenant”. Amy Knight. Princeton University Press, 1993.”

    Thanks for that Andy. I’ll get hold of a copy on your recommendation.

  52. Irony, think of the irony! said,

    October 16, 2007 at 6:13 pm

    Pray share with us outlanders, what the H is SWP standing for?

    Thanx!

  53. October 16, 2007 at 6:26 pm

    One or two of you write as if you think this is a problem only for the SWP, or even that it is a recent phenomenon.

    This problem has afflicted the Marxist left since at least the 1850s.

    As far as I can determine, other than Tourish and Wohlforth’s work, few have attempted to analyse this phenomenon (psychologically or sociologically) –, but no one has even so much as asked what the theoretical and/or ideological causes of our propensity to split, expel and control are, why our side is so fragmented (and thus so ineffectual) — and thus why workers ignore us in their tens of millions.

    I think I have hit upon part of the reason:

    http://homepage.ntlworld.com/rosa.l/page%2009_02.htm

    http://homepage.ntlworld.com/rosa.l/page%2009_01.htm

    http://homepage.ntlworld.com/rosa.l/page%20010_01.htm

  54. WorldbyStorm said,

    October 16, 2007 at 8:39 pm

    ejh, I sort of agree with you. But note I did suggest that whatever the rights and wrongs of the SWP the fact there was a tranche of people out there who were ex-SWP and who seemed to have less than kind feelings generated its own dynamic – again whatever the rights and the wrongs of the case. And I fully agree that sticking it to people or organisations is bad, but, that shouldn’t absolve people or organisations from either external or self-criticism. Frankly I’ve had no dealings with the SWP, good bad or indifferent other than being at meetings where they were or marches they were on. Some people I trust take a harsh line on them, others I trust don’t. From the outside it seems they have a rather cliquey approach but they’d not be the first or the last to do so. But, having said that, more generally in the Irish context the sense I’ve had from people is that while on an individual level there are many fine members as an entity it has been subject to odd shifts and turns in campaigns etc. Now, hearing that and reading all this it does strike me that there may be problematical issues as regards structure, etc. I don’t think they’re insurmountable, but – and I’m conscious this isn’t your intent – lack of discussion will not result in dealing with issues. Otherwise what happens is a sort of left wing equivalent of ‘national security’ or ‘national unity’ being trotted out to stymie discussion or change.

    Finally, I also agree with you about blog readers, but again, there is a danger of slipping into no self-examination, no critique simply to serve up a false unity and sense of accord. If it’s broke, I figure fix it (quite apart from the obvious issue that since the SWP is entirely peripheral to either Irish or British mainstream politics it’s necessary to retain a sense of proportion).

  55. ejh said,

    October 16, 2007 at 9:04 pm

    Of course, but I’m not saying “don’t discuss them” – I’m saying do it proportionately and (where possible) fraternally and with a view to not making the left look like a snakepit from the outside.

  56. Danny said,

    October 16, 2007 at 9:10 pm

    ejh, what I dont understand about your comments is why you contribute to discussions on the SWP if you dont think they are relevant?

    Surely there are plenty of other places to post what you do think is more important?

    I think its ok if you just have some sympathies for the SWP as that does help the debate. I dont myself, having experienced the ‘radical shunning’ after 10 years membership throughout my 20′s.

    I certainly wouldnt want to live in any sort of society run on those lines.
    I dont miss the SWP and dont feel in any wilderness as have more than enough serious union and campaigning work to do, and comrades to do it with.

    But when you start to think about how we can build a socialist political alternative its natural to start with what forces there are of that description, of which they are certainly the biggest fish in a very small pool.

    I guess many people would just wish them to somehow change – or be changed – so that we could work together with a large bunch of active socialists. I think thats wishful thinking but havnt got a better alternative myself, and thats why events like this are interesting to me.

    Danny

  57. cameron said,

    October 16, 2007 at 9:19 pm

    More from the Weekly Wonder.

    http://www.cpgb.org.uk/worker/692/swp%20party%20notes.htm

  58. ejh said,

    October 16, 2007 at 9:20 pm

    ejh, what I dont understand about your comments is why you contribute to discussions on the SWP if you dont think they are relevant?

    For the reasons that I give, Danny. Because my major concern about the left is not what it says so much as how it says it.

  59. ejh said,

    October 16, 2007 at 9:24 pm

    But when you start to think about how we can build a socialist political alternative its natural to start with what forces there are of that description

    Well, not really (and sorry to post twice). Or maybe it’s natural, I don’t know. But it’s wiser to look at the wider world, to ask what it looks like and how it’s changing and how socialists might be perceived and what they might wish to say. These are very wide and (hence) very general questions. They don’t have much to do with minutae or gossip or particular individuals or even with particular organisations.

    To me it is better to look outward than inward.

  60. October 16, 2007 at 9:45 pm

    Has my earlier post been deleted?

    One or two of you write as if you think this is a problem only for the SWP/Respect, or even that it is a recent phenomenon.

    This problem has afflicted the Marxist left since at least the 1850s.

    As far as I can determine, other than Tourish and Wohlforth’s work, few have attempted to analyse this phenomenon (psychologically or sociologically) –, but no one has even so much as asked what the theoretical and/or ideological causes of our propensity to split, expel and control are, why our side is so fragmented (and thus so ineffectual) — and thus why workers ignore us in their tens of millions.

    I think I have hit upon part of the reason:

    http://homepage.ntlworld.com/rosa.l/page%2009_02.htm

  61. Andy said,

    October 16, 2007 at 9:46 pm

    On Beria – I honestly cannot remember whether the rape claims were in the book, and I don’t have it to hand. I know there was recent TV documnentary (well a year or so ago) about who killed Stalin (conclusion – beria) that included those same allegations.

  62. Andy said,

    October 16, 2007 at 9:47 pm

    ejh: To me it is better to look outward than inward

    Can’t we do both? It seems to me that this is very simialr to what we were always told in the SWP when we started questioning things.

  63. Phil said,

    October 16, 2007 at 9:58 pm

    I’m not saying “don’t discuss them” – I’m saying do it proportionately and (where possible) fraternally

    This seems reasonable. What would be really helpful would be some idea of which commenters and which comments you think have been disproportionate, unfraternal and so on. As it is I’ve got no idea whether I agree with you or not.

  64. ejh said,

    October 17, 2007 at 7:15 am

    What would be really helpful

    Well it would if what we wanted was a ruck.

  65. Phil said,

    October 17, 2007 at 7:27 am

    Or a discussion between people with differing views.

  66. Cian said,

    October 17, 2007 at 8:02 am

    Well the SWP is pretty much the only (Marxist) game in town, so that’s going to be most people’s experience of far left politics even if they never considered joining – be it through an SWP front group or attending a few meetings at college. It probably doesn’t help.

  67. Andy Newman said,

    October 17, 2007 at 8:47 am

    in the absence of clarification from ejh, what we are left with is a climate of inuendo.

    We are talking about the wrong sort of thing and in the wrong sort of way.

  68. ejh said,

    October 17, 2007 at 9:00 am

    Mmm. So if I say that I’m not interested in identifying individuals because I don’t want to pick fights, that becomes “innuendo”.

    Pity’s sake.

  69. Phil said,

    October 17, 2007 at 11:37 am

    The question’s not whether you want to start a fight but whether you want to continue an argument. “I think Fred’s comment was misguided and unhelpful” feeds back into the discussion by focusing on what people are actually saying. “A lot of comments in this discussion are misguided and unhelpful” derails the discussion by focusing on what people (who may or may not include Fred) tend to do in general (which may or may not include the current discussion).

  70. LJ said,

    October 17, 2007 at 2:18 pm

    Kevin Ovenden strikes me as less of a hack than the other two, a long standing member of the SWP – remember reading his Malcolm X book as a standard text when I first joined. Truly shocking that he has been kicked out by the Stalinist leadership

  71. ejh said,

    October 17, 2007 at 2:57 pm

    The question’s not whether you want to start a fight but whether you want to continue an argument.

    In principle you’re right, but even if people weren’t sensitive about being criticised personally, I don’t think I do necessarily want to continue – I’ve think I’ve said most of what I want say and I don’t want yet another SWP thread picking off quick singles as it approaches the nervous nineties…

    ….still, if you want a bit of very old gossip, although I don’t dislike the man, Kevin was the immediate reason why I left the SWP. Why? You’ll never know.

  72. BatterseaPOWERstation said,

    December 1, 2007 at 9:41 pm

    The wheels are coming off the organizational model adhered to and fostered by the SWP. That’s the significance of the the Respect disintegration, dismal membership and recent (but hardly earth-shattering) expulsions.

    I’ve only just discovered this site and already have a fondness for the postings (and story) that Andy is telling above. It’s a story that thousands of others share and, despite being told that we were all going to be cast into, “the wilderness” (remember that one?) upon leaving or being kicked out of the SWP, have been able to learn from.

    It’s also why I just don’t follow ‘ejh”s postings.

    A refreshing part of sharing insights is that patterns do emerge. The SWP was responsible for some extremely positive initiatives and was able to grow and prosper at the heights of a collapsing Stalinism and ‘The End of History’.

    It’s internal ‘culture’ (and by this most ex-members will understand that that’s a euphemism for branches that met in and around Hackney) stank to high heaven.

    Individuals like Rees, German and Callinicos will have a desperately hard time adapting to a reality that does not include an organization open to their own manipulations. The old tricks don’t play (and their collective sensitivity to blogoshperic criticisms is hilariously apparent) and the ‘members’ won’ t pay.

    CC meetings have got to be hilarious these days. I would pay good money for tapes!

    The best thing for the ‘Left’ in Britain is that the Rees-German-Galloway layer are forever consigned to anonymity . Fear not, other, democratic and perhaps less pretentious ‘movements’ will follow.


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